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interview by Donald A. Yerxa
The Best Book Ever Written on America
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 722 pp.; $35
Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard, is one of the most prominent and controversial academics in America today. Many people know him primarily as the outspoken critic of grade inflation, political correctness, and identity politics in the academy. But Mansfield is first and foremost a meticulous scholar and a leading expert on the political philosophy of Machiavelli. He also enjoys translating great books in political philosophy. His translations of Machiavelli's The Prince (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985, 1998) and Discourses on Livy (Chicago, 1996) are major contributions to the field. More recently, Mansfield and his wife, Delba Winthrop, have turned their attention to the great classic of American political thought, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Chicago, 2000). Mansfield sat with Donald Yerxa in February before a lecture at Eastern Nazarene College to discuss this new translation and the enduring relevance of Tocqueville's observations.
You indicate, in the introduction to your new translation, that Tocqueville's Democracy in America "is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." Why do you say that on both counts?
Well, let's see; can we think of a better book written on democracy? Maybe John Stuart Mill's On Liberty? Or Henry Adams's book, Democracy? What is striking about Tocqueville's Democracy in America is that it's not a book about democratic theory. It is a book about democratic practice. You might say in addition to this that since he claims to be producing a new political science for a new world, he is giving us a theory about the practice. That is what makes Democracy in America so special, different, and perhaps superior to books like Mill's On Liberty, which is a paean to democracy, a hymn of praise that ...